Retired Chinese star Li Na still a big favourite among tennis fans
She may not be among the eight superstars vying for the BNP Paribas Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Finals Singapore presented by SC Global title this week.
However, Li Na remains a big hit, judging by the turnout and atmosphere at the tournament's fan zone outside the Indoor Stadium yesterday afternoon.
More than 300 fans turned up to see the former world No. 2 at the OCBC Square, where she interacted with selected tournament ball kids and signed autographs for about half an hour.
About 200 autograph hunters had formed a queue hours before the 32-year-old Hubei native arrived with Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong, and WTA chief executive and chairman Stacey Allaster just after 3pm.
The fans brandished an arsenal of memorabilia - giant tennis balls, the ex-player's autobiography "Playing Myself" and WTA Finals souvenirs, waiting patiently in the blazing heat to get up close and personal with their idol.
Li, the star from China and owner of two Grand Slam titles - 2011 French Open and this year's Australian Open - was relaxed and all smiles as she met the fans and patiently scrawled her signature on all sorts of surfaces.
Asked about her early days of retirement at a press session an hour or so earlier, she said: "Of course (I'm) pretty happy to be here - I don't have to train, I don't have to play matches, just come here to see all (my) friends.
"Now I can be like a fan, you know, and just watch some matches."
One of Li's fans, Ecaterina Soriano, flew in from the Philippines to catch the Finals and was one of the lucky ones to get Li's autograph.
"She was such a great player and it is a big pity that she's retired already," said the 21-year-old, who was accompanied by her Singapore-based father, Melbert.
"She's so tall! I didn't expect that," added Soriano, of the 1.72m-tall tennis star.
But not everyone went home happy, after Li was ushered away from the autograph session at about 3.45pm, especially when the board at the head of the queue stated that it would end at 4pm.
Said an angry Vincent Lim, who was near the head of the queue with his daughter: "We have been queueing since 2.30pm and my daughter had been looking forward to seeing her idol for the first time."
An elderly wheelchair-bound woman, who was accompanied by a man in his 30s, also missed out on meeting the star.
They declined to be photographed or interviewed, simply saying "too bad" before disappearing into the crowd.
Still, tennis fans milled around after Li's departure to take pictures with the Australian Open trophy.
One fan was overheard asking his young daughter: "Did you see her? The champion?"
Li Na's verbal volleys
- PHOTO: REUTERS
Of course, I'm not coming back to tennis. I'm already 32... I have to take care of my family now, because the last 32 years I was trying hard as I can on the tennis court.
- On the possibility of a comeback
Sometimes, athletes find it very easy to find friendship on the Tour; sometimes not. I was so happy I can be best friends with her. Yeah, best wishes to her.
- On her friendship with Petra Kvitova
You know, I was born in China; I grew up in China. For sure (my) first tennis academy will be in China. If business is doing well, yeah, why not?
- On opening a tennis academy in Singapore